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Some States See Tolls as Highway Funding Option

Wed December 29, 2010 - National Edition
Walt Williams

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) West Virginia currently has a little less than 77 miles of toll road in its borders, with the West Virginia Turnpike accounting for all of it, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Not all states have tolls roads, but many of those that do have more miles of toll road than the Mountain State. They range from a high of 685 mi. on tolled interstate and non-interstate roads in Florida to a low of just one toll mile in Utah.

Those numbers will likely grow in the future. The main source of revenue for road maintenance and road construction at both the state and federal levels has been the fuel tax. But fuel taxes are not keeping pace with the cost of maintaining roads, thanks in large part to the development of more fuel-efficient vehicles and changing driving habits.

The simplest solution would be to raise fuel taxes, but that option hasn’t been popular with politicians elected to office on the promise of keeping taxes low. The federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised in any significant fashion since 1993. A recent suggestion by President Barack Obama’s deficit commission to raise the federal fuel tax by 15 cents a gallon by 2013 largely fell on deaf ears.

State leaders also are reluctant to raise taxes. While serving as governor in 2008, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., convinced lawmakers to temporarily freeze a projected automatic increase in the state’s roughly 32 cents-per-gallon tax.

With the exception of the Turnpike, there was no mechanism for creating new toll roads in the state until 2009, when lawmakers passed a law allowing their creation as one tool the state could use to come up with road funding.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation sought the law. The expense of building new roads is among the highest in the country, transportation officials have noted. Expanding the 14-mi. stretch of U.S. 35 in question is projected to cost somewhere around $200 million.

Toll roads tend to encounter public opposition no matter where they’re built, but economists say they often represent a better way of funding roads.

A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles concluded that fuel taxes fall disproportionately on poor people. They acknowledged that as individuals, low-income people pay a lot of money out of pocket through tolls, but as a group they pay less money than other forms of generating revenue, such as sales taxes.

Other economists tend to agree, according to a 2006 paper by Robin Lindsey of the University of Alberta. Lindsey tallied the writings from a wide range of economists and concluded that most favored tolls as form of generating revenue.

"Beyond that primary insight, however, there is much disagreement," Lindsey wrote. "Economists disagree over how to set tolls, how to cover common costs, what to do with any excess revenues, whether and how ’losers’ from tolling previously free roads should be compensated and whether to privatize highways. These disagreements fill a lot of pages, while the main point of agreement is largely taken for granted."

At the same time, economists’ reassurances have done little to alleviate the concerns of critics such as the National Motorists Association, which advocates for drivers.

The NWA and other critics argue that toll roads often require the establishment of new bureaucracy to collect and manage the tolls. They also take issue with the argument that tolls represent a "free-market" solution to the problem, noting motorists have little say over the tolls they pay and there is little in the way of competition when it comes to highway services.

"You’ve got the fuel tax," NWA Executive Director Gary Biller said. "It’s not the greatest system in the world but it seems to be the best we have."

State transportation officials, working under a memorandum of understanding with the West Virginia Parkways Authority, are moving ahead with plans to convert part of U.S. 35 into a toll road. The next step is for two public hearings about the proposed tolls, which start at $2 per tollbooth and go up depending on the size of the vehicle.

State officials haven’t announced any plans for future toll roads, with the exception of a small section of Mon/Fayette Expressway in Monongalia County.

The question is whether other county commissions will be eager to enter into agreements with the state officials after the Mason County controversy. So far, it is a conversation that the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia has not had, according to executive director Vivian Parsons.

"Certainly we are looking at this (Supreme Court) opinion," she said. "We will have a conversation about how far-reaching it may be."

State transportation officials did not make themselves available for this story.

Ironically, the provision requiring state officials to first seek the approval of county officials before building new toll roads was drafted to avoid the kind of conflict that arose in the U.S. 35 debate.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said some changes probably would need to be made to the law when lawmakers meet in regular session next year. Among them is clarifying that the tolls come off once they’ve raised the money to pay off the initial price of the project and clarifying the role county commissions play in determining new toll roads.

"I think the people out there rightfully think, and rightfully say, the county commission should have as much information as possible before casting the vote," he told West Virginia Media’s public affairs program "Decision Makers."

"We should’ve put it in the code when the timeline is, and that isn’t there and that should be changed."

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